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Bread & Roses Strike Speaks to the Present

From 100 Years Ago, Issues Resonate Today

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During the Bread & Roses strike, children were evacuated to sympathetic families in other cities and towns.

By Sandra Seitz

As the Occupy Wall Street and protests in other cities wind down, observances of Lawrence's Bread & Roses strike of 100 years ago echo the issues in contemporary headlines.

“The 20,000 people who went out on strike for a living wage in 1912 were the 99 percent of their time,” says History Prof. Robert Forrant, who chairs the Bread & Roses Centennial committee in Lawrence. “The ‘robber barons’ of industry had concentrated wealth and power to an unprecedented degree, like the one percent of today.”

Forrant answered questions about the strike, its causes and results.

Q. Why did the strike happen?

A. The walkout on Jan. 11, 1912 didn’t happen spontaneously. There were long-festering grievances and efforts to organize. Lawrence is only seven square miles and every bit of that space was exploited for factories and workers’ housing, because money was being made – the city produced 25 percent of the national output of woolens, well protected by tariffs.

The majority of mill workers were recent immigrants, speaking more than 20 languages. Living conditions were crowded, with houses behind houses. Ironically, one report described the loss of efficiency to mill owners because their workers’ eyesight was damaged by living in dark houses. 

Half of the workers were girls aged 14 to 18 and one-third of workers died by age 25. Lawrence had the fifth highest death rate in the country for children under 5, right behind four other Massachusetts cities – Lowell, Worcester, Fall River and Holyoke – all mill towns.

The spark for the strike was a progressive law to reduce the hours that women and children worked, from 56 to 54. Once before, the mill owners had adjusted rates to keep weekly pay the same, but not this time. That difference in wages amounted to several fewer loaves of bread a week, devastating to a family living at the margin. 

Q. What made the strike successful?

A. The city’s reaction was swift and severe, with militia called out and supplemented by forces from other cities and by Harvard students who could skip their finals if they joined up. Mill owners turned fire hoses on picketers and Marine Corps sharpshooters were brought in. A young woman striker was shot and three union leaders were charged with her murder, even though they were miles away at the time. They were held until months after the strike. 

Against all these odds, the strike was a success. One reason was the strong network of collaborating women. They might speak different languages, but they cooked together, tended each other’s children, carried water, helped the sick. They kept the strikers united.

Another reason is the Industrial Workers of the World, an explicitly anti-capitalist union that organized a huge relief effort, and a multinational strike steering committee, the Committee of 10. They held meetings and published materials in multiple languages, ran a soup kitchen and used tactics learned from European labor actions.

Evacuating the children to sympathetic families in other cities, with lots of fanfare, was one such tactic. When police and militia were sent to stop it, the news of women and children being clubbed and arrested went ‘viral’ – one headline was ‘Police Beat Waifs’ – and got the attention of Helen Herron Taft, the president’s wife. Two months after the strike began, the owners agreed to the strikers’ demands.

Q. Why do we care about a strike 100 years ago?

A. The strike was a landmark moment in the history of the United States, a history that often overlooks the achievements of labor and only celebrates immigrants after they’ve been here for generations. With solidarity, non-violent action and widespread support, the workers won important rights.

The issues of 1912 resonate today.

The strike highlighted the incredible concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, political leaders dependent on corporate money and a tax structure that benefits the rich. 

Media attention to the strike led to anti-immigrant backlash, including the quota system to reduce numbers from southern and eastern Europe. Hard times come along and again we have an anti-immigrant uproar – that ‘illegals’ are taking away jobs and legal immigrants don’t deserve public services.

Many gains were lost after 1912 because the rights were attached to a particular job in a particular place and capital was mobile. The same things happen today – corporations have multiple advantages, while American workers don’t have portable benefits, seniority or health insurance. That great American mobility is a myth.

Q. Why the name, Bread & Roses?

A. It wasn’t used at the time, but was applied later from a poem by James Oppenheim. The most popular slogan was ‘8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep and 8 hours for what we will.’ The name Bread & Roses captures that feeling that we have a right to a decent life. 

The Bread & Roses Centennial exhibit is on display at the Everett Mill in Lawrence, with a virtual display online. Check online for upcoming events.  Check out a photo gallery on the exhibit.